By Anna Mehler Paperny
(Reuters) - Abdi was sitting cross-legged on the floor reading the Quran with his friends when the shooting began - a staccato spray of bullets into the crowd of worshippers gathered on Sunday at the mosque in Quebec City, Canada.
It was the shout from the doorway that alerted them: "Allahu akbar!" which means "God is greatest!"
"We all turned … and that’s the point when they started shooting," said Abdi, a 22-year-old student who declined to give his last name, fearing for his safety.
Abdi hit the floor, arms over his head and ears. But he could still hear the men around him praying for their lives until gunfire cut them short. He felt a trio of bullets whisk over his head.
“Everyone got down, and those people standing in prayer, two of them were in the same row as I was, and the bullets hit them,” said Abdi, who spoke with Reuters Monday from his home in Montreal. He was in Quebec City visiting friends when he was caught in the carnage.
"People were praying to God, ‘Save us from this hell; save us from this massacre.’"
Again and again, Abdi heard the sound of reloading guns. He prayed the attackers would not go upstairs, where the women and children were gathered.
"I thought I was going to die."
Abdi is convinced he saw two shooters. Police say there was only one.
It was not until police cleared the scene that Abdi opened his eyes. He stood and beheld "a graveyard" – dead, dying and injured people just feet from where he and his friends had lain.
"It was a horrible moment."
The phrase "Allahu akbar" is a common religious invocation that has been uttered by some attackers in incidents inspired by Islamic State. But that night, Abdi said, he could tell it was not a Muslim speaking it. "The tone of voice is different for a person who speaks Arabic or who can recite the Quran."
On Monday, Alexandre Bissonnette was charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder with a restricted weapon in connection with the shooting that killed six people and injured 17 others. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it "a terrorist attack."
In the massacre's aftermath Sunday night, survivors and bystanders gathered across the street from the mosque in a coffee shop that handed out free coffee as family members crowded in to dial loved ones on repeat, and swarms of reporters charged their phones.
Amin emerged from the cafe to head home, shell-shocked, his gloveless hands growing cold and chapped in the below-freezing air.
Amin told Reuters he had cowered by the mosque's eastern wall from the gunfire. When silence fell, he stood to see bodies slumped around him. He asked that only his first name be used.
Zebida Bendjeddou left the mosque before the carnage erupted and spent much of Sunday night glued to her television, trading phone calls with friends and community members hungry for news of the attack on their place of worship.
"Everything is toppled," she told Reuters.
There have been threats before, she said, but nothing like this.
"In June they'd put a pig's head in front of the mosque. But we thought, 'Oh, they're isolated events.' We didn't take it seriously. There are mean people everywhere.
But now, "those isolated events, they take on a different scope."
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Additional reporting by Kevin Dougherty and Allison Lampert in Quebec City; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)